Skip navigation

ABC Books

ABC books were works designed to teach the letters of the alphabet. From medieval times until the 18th century they were usually part of a primer that consisted of prayers, and thus were tied to not only reading instruction but also religious education. As early as 1693, John Locke in his Some Thoughts Concerning Education suggested that alphabet books could contain ways of teaching letters by means of entertainment, but his thoughts were largely left unfulfilled  until the 19th century, when ABC books began to be published on a variety of subjects other than just religion, including such topics as animals, nations, kings and queens, to name but a few. Edward Lear contributed another idea, his nonsense alphabet books in 1871. Other notable nonsense books appeared by acclaimed illustrators Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway. The 20th century presented even more alternatives, producing volumes that not only contained multiple elements of entertainment but also more varieties of multiculturalism.

An early type of ABC book were Hornbooks, which were popular from the 14th through the 18th centuries, generally consisted of lessons written on single sheets of parchment attached to a wooden board, with a very thin layer of translucent horn nailed on overtop of the parchment to protect it. They usually contained the alphabet and the Lord's Prayer, although some larger versions also contained common syllables to help with learning.

Another early example of the genre were Battledores like Richardson’s New Battledore (1830), which were made out of very thick parchment rather than wood and horn, included not only the alphabet but also verses and sometimes short tales, poems, and simple lessons. Though no one is certain how long these kinds of publications have been around, the word ‘battledore’ has been in the English language since 1598, and they were produced until the middle of the 19th century.

New types of ABC books appeared in the late nineteenth century. Kate Greenaway’s Alphabet (1885)is a miniature book containing her characteristic illustrations of children, all of whom are playing on each letter of the alphabet. In contrast, Florence Holbrook’s and H.D. Pohl’s Hiawatha Alphabet (1910) contains not only full color illustrations on each page but also a short verse accompanying each letter, and presents the alphabet from their conception of Native American culture. Unfortunately though not surprisingly given its time of publication, it presents and reinforces numerous cultural stereotypes and contrasts Hiawatha’s pictographs with white children’s “going to school, / To learn how to read, / write, and cipher by rule.”

ABC books published later in the 20th century could be both playful or serious.  Dr. Seuss’s ABC (1963) includes typical Seussian creatures and is filled with bright colors and simple rhymes, all with his characteristic twist of nonsense. Muriel Feelings’ and Tom Feelings’ jambo means hello: Swahili Alphabet Book (1974), named a Caldecott Honor book, presents an alphabetical introduction to various Swahili words. Feelings, who is remembered for his The Middle Passage: White Ships / Black Cargo (1995) that chronicles the forced journey of African slaves to America, uses black and white watercolors to create glorious warmth and depth to his illustrations. Z is for Zamboni: A Hockey Alphabet (2002) by Matt Napier and Melanie Rose similarly presents some new vocabulary and information to its readers, but their rhyming verses and soft oil paintings focus on hockey and it wealth of terminology, history, and players.

In contrast, with Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (1989), Bill Martin, Jr., John Archambault, and Lois Ehlert create a delightful story that personifies each of the letters in the alphabet as they climb a coconut tree. In 1999, Scholastic animated the story and added a lively song, providing a rhythmic alternative to the traditional ABC song sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Eric Carle’s ABC (2007) shows what one of the 20th century’s more influential illustrators of children’s books can do with his distinctive style of colorful collage; to progress through the book readers must lift the flap on the right-hand page to reveal the next letter.